Saturday, September 28, 2013

Travels with Chili: Whidbey Island Idyll, Pt. 1

I love islands. As someone who's grown up on those vast tracts of land commonly called continents, islands have always held a certain fascination, surrounded by water, fixed and yet somehow seeming to float in their liquid surroundings.

Walker and Kitty ready to ride.

So when an offer came for a chance to explore Whidbey and Camano islands, located on the northern border of Washington's Puget Sound, I couldn't have been more excited. We'd traveled to many of their northerly neighbors in the San Juans, as well as the Gulf Islands off the coast of Canada's Vancouver Island, but had never made it to Whidbey. And we could visit my friend, prolific travel and food writer Sue Frause, on her native ground and meet her husband, Farmer Bob. Who wouldn't jump at the chance?

Farmer Bob making French fries.

We piled our gear and the dogs into Chili and left Portland around nine a.m. on a Saturday morning, expecting the trip to take around four hours, including the ferry ride from the charmingly named town of Mukilteo. Much to our surprise we sailed right through the dreaded Tacoma-Seattle Bottleneck, arriving just in time to drive onto the ferry for the 20-minute ride to the island, the whole trip taking only three and a half hours.

The Inn at Langley overlooks Saratoga Passage.

Our first stop was at Sue and Bob's farmhouse on the edge of Langley on the southern end of the island. We parked Chili next to the barn Bob built from scratch (with his amazing shortwave radio room upstairs) and alongside the prodigious vegetable garden he planted next to it. They welcomed us into their home in the best way possible, with the smell of bacon frying and the promise of BLTs to come. Plus Sue had convinced Bob to make his famous French fries, and there was plum pie for dessert. Talk about the perfect hosts!


Stuffed with wonderful food and great conversation, we drove the few blocks into town to check into our room at the Inn at Langley and figure out how we could possibly burn off enough calories to make room for the six-course dinner at the inn's restaurant that evening. Right in the center of town, the inn, with its Japanese-meets-Northwest aesthetic, is perched overlooking Saratoga Passage, with a long public walkway for strolling or idling along the water's edge.

Useless Bay Coffee Co.

The rooms are warm and comfortable, and many have decks looking out over the water. Thought was obviously given to maximizing both the view and privacy from each room, since in the waterfront rooms on the upper levels the large windows can be left unshuttered even at night. Our room was a designated dog-friendly room, each pet given a bowl and a special Inn at Langley bed, which they vastly preferred to the ones we brought from home. (More on traveling with pets in a future post.)

Black cod, béarnaise, summer squash.

Taking them out for a stroll around town while Dave rested, it was clear that while Langley does cater to the tourist crowd with gift shops and island logo-wear, it's still a place where people need to get their groceries—the Star Store is stuffed with wine, produce, a deli and regular and organic dry goods galore—and coffee, locally roasted at Useless Bay Coffee Company.


Chef Matt Costello (top photo, introducing the evening's menu) has helmed the inn's restaurant since leaving Tom Douglas's Seattle empire ten years ago. His inspiration comes from what he said is "the transition point between the forest and the sea where excitement happens." His dinners feature Northwest ingredients, including a lot of foraged items like devil's club shoots, horsetails, sea lettuces and rose hips, as well as produce he and his wife grow on five acres of land they farm just outside of town. Costello said it's all aimed at giving his guests "a sense of where they're eating."

A fair amount of modernist technique appears in his cooking, but it isn't the focus of the menu. Instead, he scatters it throughout the meal to concentrate a flavor here or a texture there. Above all, the dishes show a great deal of joy, and even whimsy, in their preparation, exemplified by the little terrariums in glass globes that floated above the big central table through most of the meal until Costello cut them down and set them in front of us. The "forest and earth" course!

He said it's all in an effort to bring guests into a community, making it a richer experience than words on a menu and food coming out of the kitchen. I know I felt it and, from the bubbling conversation around the table during the evening and exchanging of stories afterward, other guests that night did, too.

Read the other posts in this series: Whidbey Island Idyll, Pt. 2, about Greenbank Farm and Camano Island Coffee Roasters, and Pt. 3, Cama Beach on Camano Island.

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